Power Grab
May 28, 2010 12:00 AM | 2084 views | 11 11 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
EMPIRE BUILDING? A power grab? Call it what you will, but the secretive efforts by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce to gain undisputed control over the county's major economic development players - and their tax-supported budgets - fail not only the "Is it Best for Cobb? Test" but also the "Smell Test." And as such, the Chamber's efforts deserve to be deflected.

As was reported in Thursday's MDJ, ultra-insiders at the Chamber have been laying the groundwork since at least September for it to take over the county government's three-person Economic Development Department (and its $350,000 annual budget) and then the Cobb County Visitors Bureau, (which receives approximately $1 million per year in hotel/motel tax proceeds).

According to documents obtained by the MDJ via an Open Records request, the scheme was apparently hatched by former Chamber Chair David Connell of Georgia Power, lame duck Chamber CEO Don Beaver and current Chamber Chair Rob Garcia of Bank of North Georgia. The documents also show their efforts were spurred on by then-Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairman Sam Olens and then-Northeast Cobb Commissioner Tim Lee, who now is running to succeed Olens. Olens e-mailed County Manager David Hankerson on March 12 urging him to add a vote for an exploration of such a takeover to the March 23 commission agenda (his final meeting prior to his resignation to run for state attorney general). Said Olens: "I want the ED item on the agenda. Please get it done."

And it got done, the board voting 5-0 in favor of it.

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THOSE PUSHING THE MERGER say it is needed to give Cobb "one voice" and one "point of contact" for economic development. Moreover, they say it would reverse what they say is a perception on the part of the Perdue administration that Cobb's economic development efforts are "slow, fragmented and ineffective, causing us to miss out on significant economic development projects that would grow the prosperity of Cobb citizens and our county," according to a March 12 report drafted by Connell on the proposed takeover.

Chamber officials say state economic development official Heidi Green of Marietta, a Perdue loyalist who may well be out of a job after Georgia elects a new governor, has told them the county's economic development department needs "to get its act together."

But since when did counties start outsourcing their work on the whim of a state bureaucrat? Especially a county as able and proud as Cobb? If anything, Atlanta should be taking suggestions from Cobb, not the other way around. If Cobb can operate first-rate police, fire, library and recreation services, there's no reason to think it can't run a first-class economic development shop, too. And if there is a problem with the current operation, the solution is to fix it - not to give it away. Can you imagine the commission deciding to outsource the fire department based on the remarks of a crabby state bureaucrat or political appointee?

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CONNELL AND BEAVER et al argue - unconvincingly - that the county development department just isn't getting the job done. The best rejoinder to that is to take a look around. Cobb is hardly dying on the vine, even in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And County Manager Hankerson, who oversees the county's in-house economic development department, says he cannot name a single big prospect that has gotten away.

The suspicion is that not only does the Chamber want to amass all economic development authority under its roof, but that it also wants control of the county tax dollars now used to pay for that work. Beaver sent a Memorandum of Understanding to Garcia back on Sept. 9 proposing that the county would pay the Chamber up to $175,000 per year for taking over its ED department. But it's ridiculous to suggest that you could run a "world class" ED office for just $175,000. We suspect that figure is just "the camel's nose in the tent" in terms of what it would ultimately be asking of county taxpayers. Even the City of Marietta's economic development department has a budget well in excess of $200,000.

Chamber insiders with a vested interest in the proposed power grab are complaining that Gwinnett and Muscogee counties have better ED operations that we do and that we're losing business to them. Again, we are unaware of any lost development - and a "windshield survey" just about anywhere in Cobb would negate that argument.

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MEANWHILE, THERE IS PLENTY of documentary evidence that the Chamber also envisions gaining control of the county's Visitors Bureau and its budget. But its handling of the Cobb Development Authority is hardly reason for confidence. You'll recall the Authority has allowed the Chamber to siphon off plenty of public money for its private use, such as $157,000 for furnishings at its offices, thousands on billboards and movie ads and $240,000 to subsidize the Chamber's money-losing magazine, which directly competes with a dozen private magazines in the county and likely helped put one of them - a Chamber member, at that! - out of business.

Hankerson, who knows economic development well after all these years, says he would never waste money on billboards or movie trailers for such a purpose - and ads that the county is trying to cut down on the number of billboards, not use tax dollars to increase their number.

And then there's leadership: The Cobb Chamber is a state of upheaval. Former President Bill Cooper was forced to retire last fall and Beaver is slated for ouster in November. No one knows who the new Chamber CEO will be, and he or she won't be here for months. Therefore, for the county government to outsource its ED operation at this point would amount to buying a pig in a poke. No ED office is better than the people who run it.

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WE MENTIONED AT THE OUTSET that this proposal flunked the "smell test." Boy, does it ever. Not only did those who hatched it deliberately leave much of the Chamber board out of the loop, they deliberately did the same to most of the county commission and even Hankerson. The favored few (Olens and Lee) were aboard from the outset, but the others were given the "read it and weep" treatment.

One of the arguments for the power grab is that it would allow the Chamber to react "within 48 hours" to any ED proposal. That doesn't leave much time for government officials, the media or taxpayers to weigh in - or even be made aware - of such a proposal. And you can bet that is by design.

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IF COBB COUNTY has an economic development problem, it's not very obvious. Few would say it is the biggest issue facing the county. And fewer still would say the answer is to hand over a chunk of the county budget to a private entity like the Chamber to stealthily run things, especially when the Chamber is on the verge of being temporarily rudderless. The Cobb Chamber has a long and illustrious history of touting Cobb and supporting business and stronger schools. It has played a vital role in the county's development into one of the Southeast's business Meccas, and hopefully will continue to do so. But in this case, it has overplayed its hand.
Comments
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he's no fool
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June 06, 2010
Guarantee Sam leaves no e-mail trail!
Open Record
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June 03, 2010
Wonder if the MDJ will dig deeper into Sam and Tim’s e-mails, inside sources say could be good reading. Also an election changer!!
Alan Faircloth
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May 30, 2010
I don't care if the Chamber handles the Economic Development, but I am AGAINST their receipt of ANY MONIES from the County. Public taxpayer monies should not be paid to the Chamber.
Curious One
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May 28, 2010
OK candidates Olens and Lee - time for a statement of admission or denial ? Tell the citizens of cobb what a lousy job your CD group has been doing or call off your chamber cronies !

You know the players ?
Smell Test?
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May 28, 2010
Now if I understand this editorial correctly...(a) the Cobb Chamber exists to promote business development and expand jobs in the County; (b)the economy stinks, the County has lost jobs and unemployment is over 9%; (c) improving business development and creating jobs just might be a good idea under the circumstances; (d) the County ED Office appears to be accomplishing nothing on that score; (e) the County has no idea what to do and (f) the Chamber has stepped in and made a proposal to try another strategy. Rather than suggest that maybe it is a good time for the County to think seriously about its economic future and consider ways to more effectively attract business (regardless of whether this particular proposal is the right strategy or not) the MDJ...(a) says it has looked around (scientifically) and thinks things are just fine; (b)pronounces that the Chamber's motivation doesn't pass the "smell test"; (c) concludes that the proposal must be just a power grab and (d) insults business leaders of a business development organization for having the audacity to try to improve the County's business climate. Who can possibly argue with that impeccable logic? Is it just me, or does Cobb County operate in a parallel universe?
mk-
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May 28, 2010
Can't think of any businesses or econmic development Cobb has missed out on?

First of all,... what top-notch companies are going to ask their people to relocate to a traffic nightmare,.. w/ scenes such as that hollow shell nightclub that you can see from I-75/Mariettsa Pkwy., or the run-down areas surrounding Smyrna, Marietta, Powder Springs, Mabelton, etc. Cobb only has 6-Flags & White Water,.. neither of which they take care of very well. 6-flags is a teen/gang hang-out plopped down along a forgotten part of the Cobb/Douglas border. You would think that that whole area would have become world class hotels, convention centers, , etc,.. w/ access to airport. Maybe, THEN the baseball park out there would have made sense!

FINALLY, the Cumberland CID has done plantings along several exit ramps(thanks CID), (like Gwinnett Village CID did 6 years ago),.... but the area is still unatractive to business ventures. Maybe if the Windy-Hill Road flyover ramp wasn't removed from the GDOT's plans,..& would have been built, it would have led the way for significant changes for this area, which COULD HAVE paved the way for the "Global Green Corridor" that was presented. I would imagine 1st class & Fortune 500 companies will back away from Cobb, just for the simple fact that it seems so unprogressive, Hwy. 41 & South Cobb Drive (2 MAJOR thoroughfares) have been completely IGNORED. David Montanya told me 3 years ago that South Cobb Drive wasn't even on the radar. Really?? Cobb County is going to suffer w/ traffic woes & no real economic development,... cos you guys don't seem to understand the importance of being on the cutting edge! The one good hope Cobb has IS the city of Kennesaw area in & around KSU! (just straighten them out about illegals,.. then Cobb can be proud)--North Fulton, South Fulton & Gwinnett are going after the new business that equates to more jobs, & they know seem to know how to do it!!!
EMC Monopoly Member
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May 28, 2010
I suggest that the Cobb Chamber is following the Dwight Brown playbook - Maybe Dwight and his Board should take over the Cobb Chamber or have they already taken over ? Behavior, actions, secretive, self enrichment and screwing the public, sounds like Dwight ?
Serious Senior
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May 28, 2010
Very pleased with the MDJ to publish this Editorial today. Hope Cobb voters read and vote accordiningly on July 20. We should not be voting for the business community to run our county.

Should we?
Dustoff
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May 28, 2010
Quite a few years ago while working for the county I was assigned to assist ED with helping furnish info to a large company the Chamber was trying to convince to move their large manufacturing operation to Cobb.

During every meeting the Chamber refused to give any information out, they refused to say how large of a property was needed, how much water would be required, how much sewer would be discharged, how much gas or power would be needed. Basically they wanted the county and other utilities to promise to provide whatever this company needed and when they needed it.

After the company announced they were locating else where the Chamber badmouthed every person involved and blamed all of us for their failure.

The Chamber is a bunch of wanna be's that seem t waste more money and time than make accomplishments.

Oh and the company they lost now resides up in Cartersville bottling beer!!!
Pat H
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May 28, 2010
The Cobb Corruption Commission is as bad as Atlanta and DeKalb County. The best way to attract economic development is to have leadership with integrity where businesses don't have to do backroom deals or pay off politician's "re-election campaigns".

Also, work at keeping illegals from turning half of Cobb into a third world barrio. What business would want to invest in a place no one even wants to drive through? Code enforcement is non-existent in Cobb and that is the biggest impediment to "economic development".

The Chamber of Commerce is the enemy of citizens and taxpayers, as bad as the ACLU - open borders traitors who want slave labor.

Thanks MDJ so much. Those of us who attended commission meetings, far too few of us, already knew about Lee and Olens and their contempt for Cobb citizens and taxpayers. They are there only for self-enrichment and have allowed Cobb neighborhoods to become a mess.
just thinking
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May 28, 2010
Don't think Sam Olens or Tim Lee and their Chamber buddies are going to like this editorial.
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